Derivan and Vex had both retreated to Vex's room. It was a mess, still, but the lizard cleared out a space on the floor for the armor to sit. Comfort wasn't a strict necessity for him, Derivan assured his friend — though that didn't stop Vex from fretting about it.
"You're sure you don't need a chair?" Vex asked again.
Derivan, equal parts amused and exasperated, chuckled. "Comfort does nothing for me, Vex," he said. "It is the same reason I do not need my own tent and bedroll when we make camp."
"Right," Vex said, then paused, looking down. "Sorry. I mean, I knew you were different, but I didn't know how much. And I don't mean to keep reminding you of it or anything."
"It is fine," Derivan said, his exasperation fading into an amused fondness. Had someone else done it, he might have been frustrated — but with Vex, he knew the lizard was being genuine. He changed the subject quickly, before Vex could ruminate for too long on it. "Could you teach me how you approach magic? I would like to see if practicing it will allow me to increase the associated stat."
"I... approach magic a little differently, because of my class." Vex hesitated. "But... that might actually be more helpful with your stat? I'm not sure. I get [Expert Mana Manipulation] and [Spell Analysis] as building blocks to my skills. Maybe you can start with trying to get [Mana Manipulation]? Could you feel mana, when I was channeling into you?"
"Yes." Derivan paused, considering the sensation again. "It felt... warm. Rather pleasant, actually."
Vex nodded. "You should feel your own mana pool as something similar; try to move it around, see if you can shape it. That's the most basic level of mana manipulation."
"I will try," Derivan said.
"I'll channel mana into you while you do this," Vex offered. "It should help you train up both slime and your mana pool while giving you a feel for mana."
Derivan nodded. He sat on the floor, with Vex sitting behind him; the lizard took a seat at his desk, his tail curling around Derivan's shoulder and supplying a steady stream of mana. The armor watched his mana tick up steadily, even as he tried to get a feel for it. It was a strange, slippery thing. As much as he tried to move and shape it, it slipped out of his grasp; he could feel it, but moving it seemed to be a task beyond him.
Still, he kept at it. The sound of Vex's quill scratching against parchment soon filled the air, even as Derivan concentrated on making progress.
It was slow going; even after half an hour, Derivan felt he had only managed to move his mana a tiny bit, down along his arm. Vex's scribbling, however, had slowed to a crawl. Derivan could practically feel the wizard working up the courage to speak.
After a moment of silence, he spoke.
"...Hey, Derivan?" Vex asked. His voice was soft. Worried. "You don't have to answer this, but..."
Vex paused, seeming to hesitate; the trickle of mana from him slowed just slightly, matching his mood. He turned in his chair to look at Derivan, who sat calmly on the floor, looking at him.
Even with Vex on the chair, they were pretty much at eye level. It was rare that Derivan really noticed how small the lizardkin was compared to him. Or how large he was compared to others, he supposed.
"It is okay to ask," Derivan prompted.
Vex swallowed; he nodded, then shook his head, then nodded again, seeming to change his mind three times in a row. It took him a moment to actually gather himself to speak.
Really, Vex was shy about the strangest things.
"What is it like?" The wizard asked. "You say you don't feel comfort the way we do. What about touch? Sleep? Do you get tired?"
He paused, and Derivan waited; the lizard looked like he still had more to say. Vex hesitated for a moment more, then blurted out his thoughts. "And are you the only one? You said the system gave you instincts, and I think there was too much going on for me to really think about it at the time, but does that mean this is true for all monsters? How many monsters — how many people do we think are monsters, when they are not?"
Ah. That was... a good question. Derivan could see why it bothered the wizard so much. He seemed almost agitated, his claws twisting over one another as he fidgeted in a surprisingly human gesture.
"I will answer your second question first, I think," Derivan said. "Or I will try. But the truth is, I do not know; I have my guesses, based on what I have seen in the dungeon that gave me life, but they are only guesses."
Vex opened his mouth, as if to ask a question, only to close it again. Derivan gave him a small, grateful smile. He was almost certain that the wizard had many questions to ask him about his dungeon, and that it was taking a significant effort of will to focus on the topic at hand.
"I do not know if I am the only one," Derivan started softly. "Nor if there are others struggling with instincts that are not their own. I remember only a small part of my existence, for the magic that animates an armor is a form of growth magic, and it took time for me to grow into a being of my own.
"But in the time I spent in the dungeon, yearning to see what else there might be and yet unable to leave... I watched. Many of us patrolled, and as we grew, we would begin to wander, searching out the confines and limits of our prison. But there were those of us that never seemed to grow — that stuck to rigid routes and perfect patterns, never once deviating from their programmed path.
"This might mean nothing. It might simply be a failure of that animating growth magic to properly grow; perhaps the magic did not fully take on their armor. Or it might simply be that some of us prefer that rigidity and routine. But we spoke amongst ourselves, those of us that could speak, and found our experiences the same; those that followed the paths never returned our greetings, never spoke, never moved, even when prompted. If moved by force, they would return to their positions. It was... strange. Uncomfortable.
"This was true even for the other species within the dungeon. Even among the unintelligent beasts, there were those that would react and respond — hiss and scuttle away if we got too close. There were others that never seemed to notice our presence, and would patrol the walls of the dungeon like they themselves were guards.
"You are right to be concerned, I think. It is one of the answers I wished to seek, when I first left that dungeon, and I had not realized until now that I could share that goal with all of you." Derivan smiled at Vex, that little curve to his eyes, and the lizardkin offered a surprised but genuine smile in return.
"As for what it is like..." Derivan pondered the question. "I have very little to compare it to, so I do not know, exactly. I feel pressure, not touch; I know how light or heavy something is, and I feel pain if I am injured. I do not need sleep, explicitly, but long periods of concentration leave me feeling sluggish. I believe this is a close approximation to feeling tired. I would say I do not sleep at all, and that a break is enough for me to recharge, but now that I am reminded, I believe I may have slept last night."
"Last night?" Vex asked, curiosity piqued. Derivan did his best impression of a shrug.
"It is difficult to explain," the armor said. "My consciousness felt like it was drifting. I believe I experienced something in that span of time, but my memory of that event has faded. I heard voices, I think, and I felt as though I was somewhere else."
"Huh," Vex said, and lapsed into silence for a moment before speaking. "It sounds like sleep? Are you sure you can't remember anything about that dream?"
Derivan frowned, concentrating — but it slipped frustratingly out of his grasp every time he reached for the memory. "I do not," he said apologetically.
"Might be worth trying to keep a dream journal," Vex said. "It's normal to have a lot of difficulty with remembering dreams. It helps if you keep a notebook nearby so you can write them down before you forget."
"I see. Do you follow this practice?" Derivan asked curiously. Vex's eyes widened almost imperceptibly — in fact, Derivan was quite certain he would not have noticed without the newfound Physical Empathy stat.
"Uh, no," Vex lied. His tail reached out to flick something beside Derivan into the space beneath his bed. "Definitely not."
Derivan paused. "You keep one, but you are too embarrassed to admit to it, and have opted instead to lie badly on purpose so that I know that you keep one, but will not press you on it."
"You are a very complicated wizard, Vex."
"Thank you," Vex muttered, looking a little embarrassed. He changed the subject quickly. "Hey, so uh, how's your mana manipulation going?"
Derivan realized, to his own surprise, that he'd actually managed to grasp the mana while he was distracted. He'd been prodding at it in the back of his mind, trying to get a grip on the strange energy inside him; now that he had it, his hold on it was firm, and he found he could both shift it around as well as push it out of his hand in a vague, nebulous shape.
"...It seems I have it," he said, pleased. He glanced at his status to check for any changes. "And it appears that I can still obtain Skills. [Intermediate Mana Manipulation] is now in my Skill list, although there was no notification for it. Slime and magic went up to five and six respectively."
Vex blinked. "That's... good," he said. "That means you're up to 500 maximum mana? And you skipped straight to intermediate on Mana Manipulation."
"I am not sure how," Derivan admitted. "I was having trouble earlier."
"Mana manipulation is tricky," Vex said with a shrug. "Every mage does it slightly differently, and requires a slightly different state of mind; for most of us, concentration helps, but it seems like it's easier for you to move it by instinct than with deliberate concentration. Your skill should do most of the heavy lifting now, though."
Derivan considered this, and tested it, finding he could move the mana easily whether he concentrated or not, as long as he allowed the skill to be active. He hummed. Convenient. He'd never been able to just... gain skills this easily, back when the system considered him a monster.
He didn't know what the system considered him now.
"Which means we can start learning how to actually cast," Vex said, distracting Derivan. The wizard's brows furrowed slightly as he considered. "Which... is difficult. I've never taught anyone how to cast before, and my method of learning spells and casting is pretty different from what most people consider wizardry."
"It is better, I am sure," Derivan said, and had to wait patiently as Vex went red and abruptly choked on nothing. He coughed his lungs out for nearly a minute, and glared at Derivan with no heat when he finally recovered.
"You did that on purpose," Vex accused, grumbling.
"I complimented you on purpose, yes," Derivan agreed.
Vex huffed. "Anyway. Normally, wizards study their spells from spell scrolls. Studying is kind of a misnomer, though — they don't really need to understand the spell. As long as the system recognizes what they're doing as studying, the spell eventually shows up as a skill in their status."
"That seems rather... mundane," Derivan commented, hesitating. Vex shrugged in agreement.
"I don't like the system's simplification of magic," Vex said. "It feels like it should be something more. I tried to study the scrolls, but before I got my class, a lot of the ideas described in them didn't really work properly." He frowned.
"That said, I have some scrolls you can take a look at. It's normally a requirement that you have some sort of magic class before you can 'study' scrolls at all, but given the state of your system, you might be able to pick them up just from looking at them." Vex hopped off his chair, going over to a pack hidden in the corner of the room and rummaging through his scrolls. "What spells would you like to learn?"
"Something that allows me to create barriers, I think," Derivan said, pulsing mana out of his hand; this time, it hovered above his palm and began to swirl around itself. It was strange to have control over a new force. It was strange to be able to change at all, to learn new skills and have them acknowledged by the system, the way others did.
Derivan smiled; though a part of him missed the strength he once had, he relished even more the opportunity to actually grow, in any direction he so chose.
"To divert blows your armor can't block?" Vex considered the idea. "Smart. Okay, I think I have just the thing for that."
He pulled out a scroll, and Derivan reached for it with a mixture of interest and trepidation.
It was time to see if he could learn magic.